This article originally appeared on WrestlingObserver.com on 9/22/13
When the UFC chose to promote the Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson light heavyweight title fight under the tagline "Greatness Within Reach" it seemed, well, downright cheesy.
Turns out the line couldn't have been more fitting. Not because the story of the fight revolved around reach, but rather because Jones and Gustafsson fought their hearts out in what will surely go down as one of the best title bouts in UFC history. In the process each fighter proved himself deserving of the appellation "great."
Jones set the record for most consecutive title defenses of the light heavyweight title by defeating Gustafsson and earning his sixth victory as champ, but perhaps even more important for his legacy he proved he isn't the type to wilt under constant pressure.
Gustafsson had the better hand speed of the two and did a masterful job creating angles, allowing him to take the fight to Jones with a crisp boxing attack. The champ was soon wearing the effects of Gustafsson's fistic acumen on his face.
It was a look we haven't seen from Jones before: blood dripping down his cheek from a nasty cut above his right eye, his upper lip swollen to the size of a cocktail wiener, and a desperate expression flashing across his usually composed face.
Jones failed on numerous attempts to drag Gustafsson to the ground, but got taken down himself for the first time in UFC competition. He threw his patented spinning back elbows and landed numerous head kicks, but the Swede ate his best shots like a heaping stack of pancakes.
This wasn't the Jon Jones we've grown to expect who takes his opponents out with the ease of a super hero subduing a hopelessly outmatched mugger, but rather an all too human athlete battling with everything he had to retain the title that changed his life.
Late in the fourth Jones eventually caught Gustafsson with a vicious spinning elbow that opened the challenger up and seemed to take the wind out of his sails heading into the final frame. Despite what must have felt like quicksand running through his veins, Gustafsson valiantly battled on and kept working his angles and throwing punches at Jones throughout the fifth.
It wasn't enough. Jones blasted the Swede with numerous head kicks, more elbows, and a flying knee to win his only clearly dominant round of the fight. Given the razor thin nature of the second and third rounds it was a fight either man could have rightfully won.
When the judges scorecards where announced Jones may have took the unanimous decision and the belt, but Gustafsson came out of the fight in a much better position than he was going into it. Sure, losing hurts even if you have the consolation of knowing you were part of an instant classic, but Gustafsson became a legitimate superstar in one night after the performance he turned in against Jones.
Fans may not have cared much about the Swede on Friday night, but after he came up just a nose short in a photo finish on Saturday a rematch between Gustafsson and Jones will likely do very good business based on the idea he has a legit shot at unseating the dominant champ.
As for Jones, his status as a legend in the making seems all the more undeniable after this fight. Although Gustafsson didn't have his way with Jones like Chael Sonnen did in his first meeting with Anderson Silva, the outcome of Saturday's bout should have a similar effect on Jones' popularity as Silva's come from behind triangle victory over Sonnen did for the former middleweight champ. We like our champions to persevere in the face of adversity, not just dominate with ease.
Speaking of champions who overcame formidable challenges, leading up to Saturday's fight Ariel Helwani asked Jones who he thought would be remembered as the Joe Fraser to his Muhammad Ali. Jones replied he had already defeated his Fraser when he beat former training partner turned bitter enemy Rashad Evans. For his part Helwani postulated undefeated heavyweight Daniel Cormier may potentially provide Jones with his greatest career rival.
Little did anyone suspect at the time Jones was just hours removed from stepping in the cage with his Joe Fraser. Gustafsson may have been viewed as little more than a lamb being led to the slaughter heading into the bout with Jones, but he emerged looking like the only lion with a legit chance of ending the king of the light heavyweight jungle's reign.
Whether he can do so is a question only time holds the answer to, but one thing's for certain: if the first fight between these two was any indication, we can expect great things when they inevitably meet again.